Suicide no. 16: Taking Charge
–by Derek Alan Wilkinson
“Why bother?” Dr. Johnson, a young, ten-year-veteran of the psych department, questioned his adjacent, much older university faculty colleague.
“I think it needs to be followed through with: the suffering. My death rattle won’t echo off of these walls until I lose my very ability to survive. I don’t think I’ll know why I should survive, day-to-day. Situations can change, despite odds.” Dr. Watts—chair of that same institution’s political science department—cautiously stated his response, which (he’d planned) would primarily function as a reprieve; Watts, lacking ill-intent, would punish Johnson’s curiosity by introducing the younger educator to his philosophy on life—his wisdom and conclusion on the matter of existing. So, in empathy, Johnson followed up with the blow-softening “But it’s everyone’s choice in the end. I’m not judging you. Just don’t be sloppy about it.”
“Yeah, I’ve got Louise and the girls to think about….” Johnson trailed off into a certain kind of sorrow—the kind no one ever wants to think about, and the ones that do, long enough, wind up toiling in the kind of insanity that, for most, lacks any sort of salvation.
Watts would eventually explain himself, and Johnson would feel selfish and lazy for wanting to end his life. The irony was that they spoke a lot these days, but almost never on campus. They were conversing in a room about a two-hour drive from the university’s tired lecture halls. The two went back and forth on their thoughts on humans, the universe, a purpose in life. They talked about their kids, plans for the future if they survived—an outcome neither professor considered to consist of a time frame any longer than six months, at best.
That’s because Dr. Johnson and Dr. Watts were in a coincidentally wretched set of circumstances: they both underwent chemo, simultaneously, in a last-ditch-effort to battle off cancer. They both scheduled the procedure on the same days, at the same cancer center in St. Mary’s (a situation that, over time, became less of a coincidence and more an act of planning to meet—to talk, and to face with the ordeal together). Watts fought for the remnants of his left lung, while Johnson waged war for his very skeleton in suffering through the battle that is bone cancer.
“Maybe I shouldn’t have said that. Now, if you end up ending your life, I’ll have to bury that guilt…”
Johnson cut him off before Watt’s conscience got the better of him, “Don’t even go there with me. You were right the first time. This decision is mine and mine only. Your honesty, and these talks we’ve been having…” Johnson’s voice dropped into a whisper as a nurse checked his IV site, “these are the only reasons I haven’t done myself in yet.”
“Then, I’ve at least given you some comfort, and your family another few weeks, then? Don’t take this the wrong way, but…”
“You’d be satisfied enough even if I ended everything today?” Watts laughed.
“We’ve been down in this hole so long, we can read each others thoughts.” They both smiled weak, sickly, balding, but genuine smiles.
Johnson knew the gist of what Watts meant—that every moment counts. But why assume that, unless the whole picture makes sense?
“And I think I have an answer to something you’d asked the other day, about why holding every moment precious is important, rather than merely assuming…” Watts was cut off.
“That every moment counts, when you’re going to die anyway?” They’d grown close enough to finish each others sentences. Prior to chemo, they barely knew each others names.
“Listen to me, Dr. Johnson.” Watts held one of those wise, old man glares that meant that whoever he was talking to would, usually, stop every other thought in their heads. They’d do this just because they felt it in their best interest to soak in whatever the old man was about to spout out—the true riches of the aged and wise.
“How were the slaves in this country freed?”
“Well, we could go into the politics of how industrialization depended upon a wage earning—versus a slave-based—economy. Which you’d know more about.”
“I know, I know.” Watts knew when there were multiple viewpoints, but clung to his original analogy—regardless of how flawed he began to suspect it to be. “They were freed because, someone, somewhere—maybe a lot of people—went out on a limb, and they made choices.”
“Or perhaps the time was just ripe.” Johnson wanted to take in what Watts had to say, but—and according to what Watts also thought-every young man’s natural tendency is to challenge a possibly paradigm-shifting ideology. Watts continued: burying his frustration at the youth’s hardheadedness, while also somewhat admiring and reflecting upon what that thought life used to be like for him, only decades prior.
“Right. Think more along the lines of Harriet Tubman.”
“I think I get what you’re trying to say.” Johnson considered Watts’s argument, momentarily, before slowly concocting a rebuttal that, he was afraid, might be riddled with logical bullet holes. “Just because a desperate, determined woman pioneered a route for southern slaves to obtain freedom doesn’t imply that everyone, everywhere, has a ‘purpose’ in that sense. I’d trade cancer for the life of Mrs. Tubman any day.”
“As would I.” Watts stiffened, and clarified: wanting to ensure that the young and brilliant professor he was lecturing understood what he was getting at. He inched toward Johnson, weak and wheezing, but glaring deeply into the young doctor’s horn-rimmed glasses, “What if no one was ever Harriet Tubman? Ever? What if every single person, who, in a position to do something, failed against all odds?” Watts shook his head, “No, no. Not even that. What if… no one had ever even tried?”
Johnson turned as if to speak, and stopped. He glanced at objects in the room—shifting his body language, and struggled to discern what the man in front of him meant: not in the general sense, but in reference to himself.
Dumbfounded, Johnson just belted out his naivety: “What does this have to do with my life, specifically? With cancer? With choosing when and how to end my affairs in this world?”
“You still have that research paper on the gorilla studies? You going to submit it to a few more journals for review?”
Johnson’s gut felt like a baseball pelted right into it. He knew what research Watts was referring to: studies that he’d compared, and made discoveries about. However, to the shock of almost no one he’d showed them to, he felt despondent about his work. No one seemed to know, or care, what the results meant—how it could change the entire viewpoint evolutionary psychologists have taken regarding the development of the primate amygdalae. He felt like Charles Darwin must have when he’d just gotten finished giving his disposition on the theory of natural selection, and the arrogant and ignorant academic world of the day merely golf-clapped the discovery into lackluster: as if Survival of the Fittest wasn’t anything to get excited about.
“Of course. But, if I can’t get myself into shape, and get my life back, what difference is it going to make?”
Watts paused, sneering slightly with disgust: “It’s not going to make any difference at all, you selfish prick.”
And that comment marked the end of Watts’s reprieve, and the beginning of one of Johnson’s greatest epiphanies. Dr. Steven Johnson laughed—realizing what Watts was really getting at, without taking offence. Johnson knew the old man was right. He imagined his epitaph, humorously: “Here lies the guy who came up with a new theory regarding evolutionary biology in primates, but croaked of cancer before he could become noteworthy for it: Just in the nick of time for some hotshot from a more prestigious university to glance over his work, and turn the theorem into a series of his own books written, published, and sold in <insert academic imposter’s> name.”
Watt’s eyed Johnson like a scolding, well-meaning father, “You do this because you know it needs done. I can’t do it for you, and the paper will pass to your family when you die. And I don’t have the leverage to get it published myself, or I would. And do you think that your wife or children are going to take my advice on the matter under consideration?”
And once again, Johnson knew he was right.
The two departed, and never met again afterward. Therapy session after therapy session would pass, and no paper on primate amygdalae would ever see the light of day. A few days after their last visit, Dr. Johnson discovered, through an eavesdropping attempt to alleviate his ever-growing suspicions, that his wife was having an affair.
According to the gossip that got passed over to Dr. Watts, Johnson never even confronted her about it. Instead, he drove three hours out into God’s country—to a place his father had taken him as a child—and walked through rows of corn being fed and bleached by a Californian sun. As the sun warmed his shoulders, he eyed clouds and air plane trails above. He drank whiskey.
And then, watching the sun set, while being eyed by suspicious strangers in the distance, he ate a bullet from a nine-millimeter given to him by his dad.
After attending his funeral, writing Dr. Johnson’s family, the psych board at the university, and everyone else, Dr. Watts finally had to accept defeat on the issue of publishing an otherwise unknown writer’s work postmortem. He kept a copy of it saved as a word document, attached to an inter-faculty email. He read it whenever he thought of things like wasted youth, or failed effort, or taking charge of the fate of humanity.
He read it when he knew that, some things must be said, tried, and done, and that these things may come at all costs, and that such precious things are worth that cost.
And, despite it all, the old professor lived another twelve years before a car crash finally took his life: on the way to his first morning lecture.